One of the pillars of Milanese cuisine, cotoletta alla milanese is nothing more than a breaded veal chop browned in butter. It’s so typical, in fact, of the cooking of Milan that if you just ask for ‘una milanese’ in a restaurant in Italy, this is what you’ll be served. Simple but really, really good!
- 4-6 veal chops
- 4 eggs, beaten
- Breadcrumbs, q.b.
- Salt and pepper
- 100g (1 stick) butter
- Lemon wedges
Take a veal chop, bone in, and flatten it slightly with a meat pounder or the back of a skillet—not too much, because you want the chop to cook evenly, which it won’t do if the meat is much thinner than the bone. Remove any silverskin you may find around the edges of the chop. (This prevents them from curling up as they cook.) Then pass each chop in some beaten egg, seasoned with salt and pepper, and then in bread crumbs, pressing the bread crumbs into the chops to make sure they adhere well.
Heat a generous amount of butter—a whole stick—in a skillet, over moderately high heat, allowing the butter to foam up. When the foaming subsides, add the chops. Don’t crowd them, but at the same time, if you leave too much empty space in the skillet, the butter may burn. Regulate the heat so that the chops brown nicely with the butter darkening too much or burning. (Adding a bit of vegetable oil helps prevent the butter from burning.)
When the chops are nicely browned on both sides, serve immediately, sprinkled with some sea salt and, if you like, lemon wedges on the side.
Like any dish of few ingredients and a straightforward cooking method, the key to success is the quality of your raw materials. The veal, of course, is key. The best veal for this dish is milk-fed veal, which has a lovely light pink flesh and an exquisitely delicate flavor. This young veal produces a thin chop that cooks rather quickly. But they are hard to find. Most veal sold in the US is older, closer to baby beef (vitellone in Italian) whose meat is darker and more strongly flavored. And since the animal is older, the rib bones will be quite large, making for a thick chop, usually surrounded by a layer of fat, looking very much like a ribeye steak. These big chops are fine for grilling, less fine for this treatment. Still, you can approximate the taste of a true milanese by prepping it like this: first, trim the chop well of it outer layer of fat, then flatten it, then soak it in milk seasoned with a bit of salt a good 30 minutes to an hour. You’ll need to brown a thick chop at a lower temperature to make sure it cooks through; the chop should be juicy but well done. And if the chops are really thick, brown them on the stovetop and then transfer them to a moderate oven (350F/180C) for 15 minutes or so. Test the meat by feeling it with your finger: the meat should be firm to the touch. If you’re not up for so this much complication, you can opt for making cotoletta rather than a costoletta (see below).
The breadcrumbs are also important. The main thing to avoid is using so-called ‘Italian’ breadcrumbs sold with various ‘seasonings’ in them. Use plain breadcrumbs or ‘Panko’ if you like. Even better, make your own fresh breadcrumbs from some day-old bread in the food processor. It’s a great way not to waste good leftover bread that’s too hard to eat.
There are a few minor variations on this dish, the most common being the addition of grated parmesan cheese to the egg wash or the breadcrumbs. Some folks like to add a bit of grated nutmeg to the egg, which is nice if used discretely. Some recipes omit both the salt and pepper from the egg, and call only for adding salt when serving. Artusi includes an unusual version (at least these days) with a prosciutto, parsley and cheese stuffing. And one variation that I heartily recommend: Some friends from Milan once recommended a nice Summery way to serve a milanese: with tomato salad, made without lemon or vinegar, on top of the just-cooked chop. Although it doesn’t sound particularly special, the taste combination is really quite unexpected.
The milanese is often served with fried potatoes as a contorno, but personally I prefer a simple green salad, some peas stewed in butter or some greens in padella.
Veal is expensive, of course. The same technique can be used on all kinds of less expensive meats, including pork chops. And of course, you can use the same technique to cook scallops of veal, pork, turkey or chicken without the bone, in which case you have breaded cutlets, or cotolette without the ‘s’ in standard Italian, although in Milan they call the bone-in version cotolette as well. A bit confusing, I know…You may have noticed a similarity between cotolette alla milanese and Wiener Schnitzel. That should not be surprising since, Milan (most of northern Italy, in fact) was under Austrian rule for most of the 18th and 19th century, after the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), which ended the War of the Spanish Succession, assigned Spain’s Italian possession to Austria. In any event, there was (and is) much Austrian influence in Milan and, at least in things culinary, vice versa. The Italian gastronome Giuliano Bugialli maintains that the Wiener Schnitzel is the Viennese version of the milanese, not the other way around.